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'Cold is their bloom signal'

Today's forecasting marvels rob some of our weather events of their drama. For example, it's hard to get too wound up about a subzero snowstorm when you can see that in a few days the temperature is going to be in the 50s. It's hard to live in the moment when you can look into the future.

Which is to say that I tucked one particular happening from this week's snowstorm into my mind that only propelled me toward the 50s. I was tromping down the street in my snowboots when I heard wind chimes ring down from a second-floor screened-in porch. I looked up at the old apartment building to see snow sifting through the screen at a garland of nautical flags whipping in the wind.

We look for those signs of warmth in the winter. Ones that have arrived in El Dorado are the result of the city planting lots of different cultivars of witch hazel to add "a little color in an otherwise dreary month," said city manager Herb Llewellyn.

I'm used to seeing golden-yellow witch hazel (botanical name: hamamelis) blooming in places such as Botanica, but El Dorado planted several cultivars, including Orange Peel, which is, appropriately, orange.

That variety looks alternately like bittersweet berries in their little brown seedpods and like those frilly tissue-paper shreds that are sometimes used as filler in gift bags.

"They looked best and started blooming in the cold" about mid-January, Herb e-mailed me at the end of last week, after the first snowstorm. "Then they looked puny when it warmed up, and now they're starting to look good again. I think cold is their bloom signal. We purchased a wide variety of cultivars, so I think in the future we'll have plants blooming during the entire winter. I thought we needed flowers in Kansas winters!"

How right he is. The fact that these plants took a powder when it was 70 and then bounced back after last week's fierce storm puts them high on my list. The shrubs have been planted around town, including along the bike path and around City Hall. El Dorado planted 19 cultivars of hamamelis. I had no idea there were that many even in existence, but Herb tells me there are actually more than 50. Can't wait to see El Dorado's next winter.

Wayside Gardens recently listed several plants that look good in winter, including Diane hamamelis, one of the varieties El Dorado planted. Here's the catalog's breathtaking description:

"This hybrid is a jewel in the landscape. The coppery-red flowers are unrivaled among witch hazels for color intensity. They appear in late winter and early spring, before the leaves, and are produced so abundantly that you will want to cut some of the flowering branches for gorgeous indoor arrangements. A very unusual color, they glow in the bleak late winter landscape, catching the eye even from across the garden!

"Another season of interest for this lovely little tree is autumn, when the foliage turns warm shades of yellow and red and remains on the tree for several weeks before falling. Glorious!

"Ultimately growing to 14 to 20 feet tall with an equal spread, 'Diane' needs only moist, well-drained, organic soil in sun or light shade to thrive. Pair it with other early-season bloomers such as Chaenomeles 'Toyo Nishiki' (flowering quince) or with other Hamamelis from the classic 'Wisley Supreme' to new autumn- and early-winter blooming 'Harvest Moon.' "

Those last two are also ones that El Dorado is growing.

Here are some other winter-worthy plants that Wayside Gardens listed as ones that "look good now" — i.e., in winter.

* Kumson forsythia. Silver along the veins of the leaves adds more interest to the usually inconspicuous forsythia of summer.

* Lenten roses (hellebores)

* Pieris japonica Cavatine

* Henry's Garnet itea

* Aronia melanocarpa "Viking." Black chokeberry may be hard to find, but it has fragrant white blooms in spring, glossy dark green foliage in summer, and bunches of edible black fruit in fall while the foliage turns orange, scarlet and carmine. The fruit stays on the bare branches in winter.

Many of our plants should be in better shape because of the moisture provided by the snow of the past two weeks, but the ones that bloomed better because of the frigid cold have my special admiration.

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